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The storied past of the Fairmont Olympic Hotel

Historian Feliks Banel joined New Day to share his wealth of knowledge about the history of the Fairmont Olympic Hotel and surrounding area #newdaynw

If the walls of the Fairmont Olympic Hotel could talk, what would they say? Historian Feliks Banel joined New Day NW to talk about just that — the fascinating history of this iconic Seattle landmark. 

“It was originally called the Olympic Hotel, and it opened on December 6, 1924,” Banel said. “That grand opening party was probably the biggest event the city had seen maybe in its history to that point, something like 2,500 people there all decked out in their finest 1920s clothing.”

From live bands and dancing in four different ballrooms to a radio station broadcasting five hours of live coverage of the party, the Olympic Hotel was the place to be that night. 

But its history goes back farther than that. Before it was a hotel, it was actually home to the University of Washington. Then called the Territorial University of Washington, it was originally located in what is now downtown Seattle’s financial district. Arthur Denning, one of Seattle’s founders donated his land to build the university. 

After UW moved to where it is currently, the 10 acres of land became prime real estate for skyscrapers and other buildings. Iconic structures were built including the Olympic Hotel, the Cobb Building, and the Henry Stuart Building, where the new Rainier Tower stands today.

“It became this kind of city within a city,” Banel said. “It was really the kind of the cradle or the birthplace of the modern Downtown Seattle that we take for granted now.”

This new metropolitan area was a big deal back in the day, with the word “metropolitan” holding a lot of weight, even becoming the namesake for Seattle’s hockey team. That’s right — before there was the Kraken, there was the Metropolitans. Named after the building company that built the Olympic Hotel, they became the first American team to win the Stanley cup.

Credit: Courtesy of MOHAI / KING 5
Seattle's Metropolitan Hockey Team.

Another big draw for the people staying at the Olympic Hotel was the historic Metropolitan Theatre, which was where the circular driveway on University Street is today. The theater was torn down in 1954 to create space for "America's most spectacular hotel entrance." Before the University Street entrance was there, the main entrance used to be on Seneca Street, a block south.

Credit: Courtesy of MOHAI / KING 5
The Metropolitan Theatre, which was torn down in 1954, to make room for a new entrance on University Street.

During World War II, you could find some of the biggest celebrities of the time -- from Carole Lombard to Bob Hope -- staying at the Olympic Hotel and selling war bonds. 

"They would hold big rallies out in the middle of University Street between Fourth and Fifth, right next to where the hotel is, at a place called Victory Square," Banel said.

Credit: Courtesy of MOHAI / KING 5
Comedian Bob Hope addressing a crowd outside the Metropolitan Theatre.

The hotel has certainly changed a lot since it first opened, but its charm and elegance has never faded.

Segment Producer Suzie Wiley. Watch New Day Northwest 11 AM weekdays on KING 5 and streaming live on KING5.com. Contact New Day.